BOULDER, Colo. -- They must find a new quarterback and four offensive linemen. And their schedule is a killer.
With such daunting challenges, Colorado's recent string of successes in the Big 12 -- a conference championship in 2001 and the Big 12 North title last year -- looks to be in jeopardy this fall.
Coach Gary Barnett, ever the realist, knows it.
"We're going to be patient with this team and not get too excited when things don't go exactly the way we want them to go," he said.
"Right now there's no way of telling how the players are going to respond to different things that are going to come up. We were dead and buried after the third game a year ago, and the team ended up evolving into something really special -- maybe the most special team I've coached."
To have any chance of repeating last season's 9-5 record (7-1 in Big 12), the Buffs will have to avoid being buried by their tough non-conference schedule. Their first four games are against rival Colorado State, UCLA, Washington State and Florida State.
It doesn't help that the Buffs have been slow starters under Barnett, losing their opener each of his four seasons. They're also 1-3 against CSU, with all three losses coming in openers.
In hopes of starting 1-0 for a change, Barnett scheduled 15 minutes of work specifically on CSU during spring practices.
Colorado's strength will be on defense, where eight starters return to a unit that ranked seventh in the conference in total defense (365.7 yards per game) but fourth in scoring defense (23.2 points).
The Buffs lost tackle Tyler Brayton and cornerback Donald Strickland to the NFL, but substantial talent returns, led by linebacker Sean Tufts, ends Marques Harris and Gabe Nyenhuis, cornerback Phil Jackson and safeties J.J. Billingsley and Medford Moorer.
"We have speed and we have depth," Barnett said. "Also, we're a year down the road with this defensive scheme."
Offense, however, figures to try the patience of the coaching staff.
Last season, the Buffs averaged a respectable 374.5 yards per game, including 232.8 rushing. Chris Brown accounted for the bulk of it, bruising his way to 1,744 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. Robert Hodge, thrust into the quarterback role after Craig Ochs bolted for Montana, played competently.
WithBrown departing early for the NFL and Hodge graduating, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson would like to see more balance, but that depends on the development of quarterback Joel Klatt, who threw only three passes as a walk-on freshman last season.
The 21-year-old Klatt does bring an element of maturity, having played three years of minor league baseball in the San Diego Padres organization.
"Leadership is Klatt's No. 1 thing," Barnett said. "He has a kind of swagger about him. At this point in his career, we just want him to run our offense and be effective with it.
"We have plenty of skill players, running backs and wide receivers. If he can efficiently run our offense, get us in the right play, keep us out of negative-yardage plays and avoid turnovers, our offense will be just fine. As he matures and gets better, he can become the center of that offense."
Senior guard Marwan Hage is the lone returning starter on the line. Guard Karl Allis has some game experience, but most of the other candidates are untested.
Faulty placekicking hurt the Buffs a year ago. Two freshmen and a junior are battling at that position, while punter John Torp, a walk-on sophomore, replaces Mark Mariscal, the nation's best punter last season.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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